Trump-Kim: Reading through the liar’s poker

Each of the two has a personal and strategic interest in reaching an agreement. They can no longer stop the game that they have started.

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This is not a detente, it is a gamble with mounting stakes. South Korea, Japan and even China are sidelined. Both Kim and Trump have a huge personal and strategic incentive for a breakthrough. But the meeting alone is a big gain for Kim, but with huge follow-on risks. Donald Trump would lose any credibility if the North Korean opening turned out to be a stunt, and  would need to hit back.

Judging from the astonishment of American and Chinese analysts, it’s clear that an unprecedented game of poker has started. Outgoing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson underlined on 9th March that ‘several weeks’ will be necessary to organize the forthcoming encounter between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un. But he conceded there has been a ‘dramatic’ shift of the North Korean stance.

Over the past year (and against the advice of the Pentagon and many others) Trump has repeatedly threatened a crippling strike on North Korea, while toughening US sanctions and admonishing China for inaction. President Moon Jae-in, a South Korean dove, has been marginalized by Trump’s hard line and by Kim Jong-un’s contemptuous rejection of any high-level contact since Moon’s election. Yet he does have the merit of having served as the intermediary in the initial phase of this new game.

China, who is gradually retreating on its opposition to tougher sanctions, is at the moment a bystander. Of course, China has always promoted the idea of direct talks between the US and North Korea, but this was with the expectation that it would remain pivotal in any developments.

This is now over. Now two strong and unusual characters are running the game. First, Donald Trump – seemingly following his own script from The Art of the deal – has threatened a military strike with more credibility than any of his predecessors (much like Kennedy with Cuba in 1962), while having early on (May 2017) broadcasted his willingness to meet with Kim Jong Un. Bill Clinton also considered that possibility, but it was at the end of his second term – and his secretary of State was humiliated in Pyongyang.

Second, there is Kim Jong Un. Having declared the success of Pyongyang’s  nuclear program, he has now produced a trump card for the negotiations: a suggestion that denuclearisation and abandonment of the North Korean missile programme is on the table. This claim warrants some healthy scepticism. The US and others have come to the table with North Korea many times, only to be sold the same horse time and time again. This time, Pyongyang  will need to make a much larger offer, yet there has been no direct proposal so far.

Yet North Korea’s u-turn illustrates an aspect of mutual deterrence: it can encourage talks and even disarmament. Certainly, two logics clash. On one side is a regime that sees no other guarantee of survival than through the threat of force, inside and outside. This threat has become credible not only to its South Korean and Japanese neighbours, but also to the United States. ‘Dying for Pyongyang’ is the least palatable option for America. But equally, the continued existence of an existential threat from North Korea remains unacceptable for US public opinion, and for much of the strategic community.

These two logics have been on a collision course for some time. Of the two players, North Korea has blinked first. Whether or not one considers Trump as a madman, he has certainly made an impression on Kim Jong Un. Kim has  proposed to the South Koreans  the supension of nuclear and balistic testing, while  America is not renouncing military manoeuvers. This is not the ‘dual freeze’ promoted by China and Russia.

Of course, Kim would also make instant gains from any deal. He would reach a diplomatic parity of sorts with the US, and that has always been a central goal of the nuclear program. He has also escaped China’s tightening noose; in the past three years, China has had to implement more sanctions, and no longer offers enough protection to justify its influence on North Korean decisions.

The result of this game is neither détente nor deescalation. On the contrary, the stakes are mounting. Donald Trump will lose any credibility if the North Korean opening turns out to be a stunt.

The immediate issue will be on-site verification. It so happens that a disarmament involving the destruction of existing missiles and nukes is easier to observe than any hazy freeze. America will not wait for eight years, as was the case after the 1994 US-DPRK nuclear agreement in Geneva, to reach its own conclusions.

For Kim Jong Un, going any farther than a pause, towards a freeze or a nuclear and ballistic disarmament, is to renounce the only ace that the regime has held since 1991. This is an adventure. Trust has never been part of Pyongyang’s frame of mind.

From this meeting Kim needs to obtain huge diplomatic and material compensations. China’s support for a genuine peace deal is half-hearted. It was adverse to any actual military conflict, but would draw no benefit from a peace settlement on the Korean peninsula. South Korea, Japan and even China have receded into the background, leaving the stage to these two players. Each of the two has a personal and strategic interest in reaching an agreement. They can no longer stop the game that they have started.

The article was first published in French by Le Figaro on 9 March 2018.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Director, Asia and China Programme
Senior Policy Fellow

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